Unsafe Haven, An, page 15
She does not know how she could have coped without the support of her parents, who continue to look after the children during her absences without complaint and once she gets home are the stalwart rocks on which she knows she can lean.
Hannah and Peter telephone every day. She knows this not because she has spoken to them but because her parents, who answer these calls, tell her about them. At first, she is furious when her mother says that in wanting to pay their condolences, her friends are also seeking comfort for their own grief. They loved him too, Elena tells her quietly, their loss deserves recognition and only you can give them that, Brigitte. Then, once on her own, she realizes that her mother is right, though she still feels unable to play the part required of her.
When Elena tells her that Hannah needs to talk to her urgently about Anas’s upcoming exhibition, Brigitte is angered again.
—The exhibition, she cries. Who’s thinking of the damned exhibition now?
For the first time, Elena tells her off.
—Don’t raise your voice to me, Brigitte. Your loss does not mean you can treat me with disrespect. And don’t forget, I am only the messenger in all this.
—I’m not ready yet, Brigitte continues to say until the morning her mother stops her on her way out of the door, sits her down and tells her firmly that not being ready is no longer an option.
—Your father and I will never stop supporting you and your children, Brigitte, but the time has come for you to face circumstances. There is no escaping what has happened, my darling girl. Your husband has been killed in the most dreadful way, but you have a son and a daughter who depend on you to do the right thing next. So what will it be?
It is as if, with that question, she is finally given the opportunity she needed to break down. She falls into her mother’s arms and cries for what seems like hours, hears her father call out to the children and take them to the park to play, listens to the sound of her own sobbing over the noise of traffic below, to a telephone ringing unanswered, to her mother’s soft voice whispering, ‘There, there,’ into her ear.
In her mind’s eye, she reviews her life in Damascus, considers the warmth and the frustration, the richness and at times the absence of reason. She trembles at the thought of war and marvels at the extremity of her fear. She had not been wrong in seeking safety for her children, she realizes that now, though there may have been a better way to deal with the consequences of her actions. For a moment too she sees her husband’s beloved face and traces his features with the tips of her fingers for the last time, and says goodbye in a whisper that only he can hear. She weeps until she can weep no more, then straightens up, wipes her hands over her face and decides she is finally done with sorrow.
—You’re right, Mother, Brigitte tells Elena. I’m willing to accept the truth. You don’t need to worry any longer. I know exactly what I have to do.
It is as if the shape of the world itself has changed, as if, in those places where there once was something solid to lean against, there is now emptiness, gaps where his father had been that threaten to fill with uncertainty and make him falter.
In the first few moments after hearing the news, Marwan had felt himself engulfed by terror, had closed his eyes as it swept over him, his skin burning and insides on fire, until he thought that he too might be extinguished, that like Anas he too would be suddenly, inexplicably, consumed by darkness. When Brigitte finally wrapped her arms around him, he had endured the embrace as a kind of confirmation of his existence, a redefinition of the physical boundaries of his being, and had felt instantaneous relief and shame at the thought.
—Rana, she mustn’t know, he had heard himself saying.
Grasping him by the arms, pulling him away from her, Brigitte had looked at him and frowned.
—Just don’t tell her, OK, he pleaded. Not yet, please, Mama.
—All right, she whispered. I won’t yet. Not until you’re ready.
For a while, whenever grief threatened to approach and turn his life upside down, he had willed himself away from it; he had rushed to play with his sister and bask in the comfort of not knowing that surrounded her, believing himself, at least temporarily, untainted by the truth. For a while also he thought hard about his father, as if in doing so he might conjure him back into existence, fashion him out of the thin air they all continued to breathe. He recalled conversations they’d had, the details of them, the way Anas had lifted his hand to his mouth to stifle a cough as he spoke, the anticipation with which he, Marwan, had willed him to continue. He remembered his father demonstrating love for home, not only with words but in the stretch of his arm towards the expanse of sea before them during holidays at the beach, in the silence he maintained as he worked, painting the colours of Syria, the people and places he cherished, the quality of light awarded them by the sun overhead and its fleeting invisibility in moments of shade. He realized that what he had learned from his father was vast and limitless, yet filled exactly this moment, this experience of growing up into someone not only older but somehow more pliable. It was a lesson in how to be an exemplary son, one that caused him anguish now because he had been something less than that while Anas was alive.
The moment had finally come when there had been nothing else to do but to accept that the worst had indeed happened: when he watched as Rana wept and allowed their mother to hold her close; when, with a spare arm, Brigitte had reached for him too and he had suddenly realized that in attempting to assuage her children’s anguish, she was also trying to ease her own. He had hated her more than ever then.
—It’s all your fault, he had said, pulling himself away. It’s because of you we’ll never see Baba again.
His remark had made Rana sob even more loudly and Brigitte, looking at him, had surprised him with her reply.
—You’re right, habibi. I thought I was doing what was best for you by taking you away but perhaps I was wrong. I shall never be able to forgive myself for that.
There was resignation in her face, defeat where he had once seen defiance, and he had realized at that moment that it would always be this way between them, that she would continue to be the parent who could not understand him no matter how hard she tried and that he would always resent her for this.
—I will not stay here any longer, he had said, his voice shaking a little. You can’t make me. I want to go back home.
He speaks only when spoken to and cries when he is alone, in his bed late at night when everyone is asleep or as he walks to and from the shops on errands, his cap placed low over his forehead, his contorting face hidden from view.
It is on these walks that he begins to see a figure resembling his father in odd places, by the lift door as he is walking out of it, or standing near the kiosk where he buys his grandfather’s newspaper every morning, even sitting on a bench at the playground watching over Marwan and his sister as they play.
Anas is not ghostlike, is neither solid nor transparent, though he is always silent during these sightings. He looks at no one in particular but is so definitely there that whenever Marwan walks past him, a whooshing sound fills his ears, the awareness of another’s presence sending a tingling feeling through his body, troubling him. Once, strolling with his mother down the street, he sees his father walking in the same direction a few steps ahead of them. When the figure stops suddenly, the face in profile now so that he notes the unmistakable bend of his father’s forehead, the straight nose, his lips pursed as they always were when he was deep in concentration, Marwan tries to steer his mother clear; but she is preoccupied with her thoughts and ignores his hand on her elbow. When she walks straight through the figure, Marwan gasps involuntarily, then watches her stop, her eyes wide open.
—What was that? she asks him.
—What was what?
She looks at him and frowns.
—I’m not sure exactly. I … I thought I felt something.
She passes her hand over her face and he notice
Had Anas felt it too? Marwan wonders.
On the day his mother sits him down and explains that she will be going to Beirut, he feels rising hope.
—I’m going with you. I want to be there for the opening. Rana too. We should all be there.
—I’m not sure the exhibition will be going ahead, Marwan. I haven’t made up my mind about that yet.
—But it has to, he protests. It will be Baba’s last exhibition. Don’t you see that? Don’t you understand anything at all? And who said it was up to you to decide, anyway?
He watches as a look of uncertainty passes briefly over his mother’s face.
She grabs his arm and looks into his eyes.
—Don’t do that, Brigitte says. Please don’t, Marwan. I know you’re angry and upset but you are not to speak to me like that. Do you think you’re the only one grieving? Is this how you treat me when I need you most? Is this how it’s going to be between us from now on?
Her eyes, he sees, are hollow with sadness.
She lets go of him, leaving soft indentations in his skin from her touch, and he senses a distance between them that frightens him.
—I’m sorry, Mama, he says. I’m so sorry.
He runs to hug her and, in that instant, senses a shift inside him, what he had once thought true pushed aside to make way for something new, something like forgiveness.
Maysoun places stacks of documents on to the shelves behind her desk to be filed away tomorrow. It has been a busy day, during which she has thought a great deal about Anas as she reviewed applications for a programme designed for the many Iraqi and Syrian artists who have fled to Lebanon. It is a project that is dear to her heart since it offers those whose applications are successful three-month residences at an artist colony in Denmark, after which the few whose work is deemed exemplary and of international standard will be allowed to remain and acquire a European passport.
She picks up off her desk a statuette that was given to her by one of the men who came in that morning, despite her protestations that she could not keep it. It is a representation of a dove in clay, one in a series the sculptor had explained, with its neck extended forward, wings closed and hollowness where its back should have been. She looks at it closely, runs her hands over it and realizes she does not like works so heavy with symbolism; she admires art that is beautiful for its own sake more. Still, given the negative experiences so many of these artists have gone through, she thinks, is it any wonder that they seek to depict suffering in their work?
She places the sculpture in her handbag, pulls on her cardigan and had just got up when there is a knock at her door.
—Maysoun, you’re still here. Peter smiles at her. Typical of me to turn up just when you’re about to leave.
She smiles back, and then leans over to one side to see who is standing behind him. —Come in, Peter. Come in.
He makes way for the young woman and little boy accompanying him. Maysoun realizes there is something vaguely familiar about the woman, who is veiled and dressed in clothes that are far too big for her. She is clearly a refugee, the little boy too; he has the anxiety she has become accustomed to seeing in others on his little face.
—This is Fatima, says Peter, and that is Wassim. Do you remember, Maysoun, I asked you to look into the whereabouts of her family not long ago?
—Yes, of course. Fatima knows that her parents and siblings are in Turkey?
Maysoun turns to Fatima and speaks in Arabic.
—We’re still working on getting you to join your family in Turkey, Fatima. I’m hoping to be given an answer soon. These situations are very complicated and it can take time to resolve them.
—But it’s impossible for me to wait any longer, Fatima says, urgency in her voice. Please, you have to help me.
—What’s the matter, Fatima? What are you afraid of?
Fatima shakes her head impatiently.
—Look, I just want to go back to my family. Why can’t you understand that?
Maysoun looks at Peter, realizing that any attempt at reasoning with Fatima will not succeed.
She turns once again to Fatima.
—I’m going to call someone and make further enquiries about your case, try to find out what’s happening. Would you like to wait outside?
She shows Fatima to the office’s waiting area where there are also toys for Wassim to play with.
—Let me make that call and find out once and for all what the situation is, she tells Peter when she gets back.
—I’m really sorry to be lumbering you with this, Maysoun.
—Not to worry. The poor woman is clearly afraid and wants to get away. Has anything happened to make her so anxious, do you think?
—I’m not sure, Peter replies. She turned up at our place with the boy and also with an infant, a baby girl. She won’t even tell us whether or not it’s hers. We had to stop asking because she got so agitated.
—A baby? No wonder she’s so upset. Thousands of babies have been born among the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon alone, so many of them out of wedlock. If, as you told me, her husband has been dead for a few years, of course she’s afraid she’ll be found out. I wonder who the father is?
—She’s living with an uncle and all his family. Surely they would know if she had been pregnant and had a child?
—Not necessarily. She may have kept it secret and then given it to someone after its birth until she could figure out what to do. She may have been raped or had an affair. Either way, she will be blamed for it. She thinks she’s brought shame to her family and cannot possibly take the baby back with her as her own.
—On the other hand, the child may not be hers, Maysoun continues after a pause. It’s always useful to have a baby in your arms when you’re on the street begging for money. You get more sympathy that way. She may have borrowed it for the day.
—I can’t really see her doing anything like that, Peter says, but I guess you never know.
—Surely you come across this sort of thing in your own work too, Peter?
—The truth is I spend a lot more time shuffling papers around on my desk than I do in the field. I’m very rarely in direct contact with patients, it’s incredibly frustrating.
Maysoun shakes her head.
—Your talents as a physician shouldn’t be wasted on bureaucracy, Peter. But I’ve told you this before.
—Well, I’m finally going to do something about it.
—I’ve applied for a position with Médecins Sans Frontières. If I get it, I’ll be working in their clinics in the Bekaa.
—I’m so glad, Peter. That’s wonderful news.
—I haven’t got it yet, Maysoun.
—I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you then. OK, let me make that call now.
It takes close to an hour for Maysoun to get the information they need.
—I’ve been told that if Fatima turns up at the refugee camp where her family is, she explains to Peter, then the authorities will be hard put to refuse her entry since she is a widow with two young children.
—That’s good news.
—Well, not necessarily. The problem will be actually to get her there. It would take ages to organize the requisite papers for her to fly into Turkey, if we can do that at all, and the only way by land is through Syria.
—There must be a way to get them out, he says.
—There might be a solution, Peter. I’ve been playing around with an idea in my head, to do with getting Fatima to her family without the hassles of officialdom.
—What idea is that?
—It could be risky, though, and that worries me much more than the thought that it’s not entirely above board.
—Given the circumstances, I don’t think we
—Well, we send ambulances into Syria on a regular basis, to carry supplies and pick up and transport patients to this country if needed, Maysoun begins. There’s a route northwards from here that runs along Syria’s coastline. It’s long but relatively safe and we haven’t had a problem using it so far.
She leans towards Peter and lowers her voice.
—The ambulance drivers have been known to ignore the presence of stowaways in the back of their vehicles. They’re brave and take pride in being able to help the refugees as much as they can.
Peter’s eyes light up.
—Brilliant, he exclaims.
—Let’s bring Fatima in here and ask her what she thinks.
Maysoun is not surprised when the young woman readily agrees to the arrangement.
—It might be risky, Maysoun warns her.
—It’s not going to be any worse than what I’ve been through so far, Fatima says. Wassim and I will still be refugees but at least we’ll be with my family, where we belong. Just tell me what I have to do.
—Peter tells me you have a baby girl too. She could be a problem if she makes too much noise at a checkpoint and arouses suspicion.
—She won’t be coming with us, Fatima says, her voice almost a whisper. Just tell me what I need to do. Please.
Maysoun looks at Peter as if to confirm her earlier suspicions.
—The ambulances set out early in the morning, she continues, before daybreak, from the car park just behind this building. When the time comes, I’ll tell the driver you’ll be there and he’ll take care of you.
Maysoun turns to Peter.
—I’ll have to see when the next ambulance is going and will let you know. You’ll have to make sure she gets there on time on the day. It’s within walking distance of your place, so it shouldn’t be a problem.